Route 66 Series: Getting to Know J. Robert Oppenheimer
Strap in, ladies and gents. We’re going nuclear, and it will be a lengthy post.
You wouldn’t think much to look at the place, at least not today. It’s simple and sparse. There’s a big pond, frequented by honking geese and ducks. Summer trees whisper in the dry breeze. Cafes and businesses have popped up over the years, mixed with the few remaining older buildings. Lovely homes line a street that some of the locals call “Bathtub Row” – once the only homes with bathing facilities. This small mesa, deep in the desert of New Mexico, doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.
Until you come upon the small monument near the town center. Statues of two men stand next to each other, one in uniform at military rigid attention, the other in a suit with an iconic Porkpie hat – General Leslie Groves, and Doctor J. Robert Oppenheimer. They forever remind curious onlookers that this is Los Alamos. This is where nuclear warfare got unleashed into an unwitting world.
Earlier this month, the world took note as the 75th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki slipped by. Survivors, now elderly with fading memories, came out and spoke to the newspapers. They wanted their stories passed on to a new generation – one they worry has forgotten the tremendous suffering inflicted on them in the closing days World War II. They relived it in chilling detail – A bright flash and a horrific bang. Thousands of dead, some completely vaporized, reduced to ghostly shadows. Two powerful cities obliterated to burning, black holes. Then came the damage and deaths inflicted by radiation, which took years to fully comprehend.
It’s enough to turn my stomach, to make me question everything I believe about the good in people. Enough to make me and plenty of others ask – was it really necessary? Some historians say that in 1945, Japan teetered on the brink of collapse, so dropping the bombs was a bit like kicking the absolute crap out of a dead horse. Then again, some historians (and many veterans I spoke with) say that a full-scale invasion of Japan was the only other alternative. After six years of devastating war, the thought of spending hundreds of thousands more lives, and dragging on the fighting for years to come, repulsed Allied command. And of course plenty of historians theorize the Truman administration dropped those bombs as a stark warning to the Soviet Union, heaving a bolt of lightning in the gathering cold war clouds.
Pick up any book on this subject, and each will have a different view point. All I know is that reading about these two attacks makes me so sick and angry my head spins. So, you might find it curious that when my husband and I traveled Route 66 in the summer of 2019, I insisted on a small detour to Los Alamos. The place almost seemed to pull me towards it. Probably because my MO with history has always been empathy. Putting myself in the shoes of people who lived it. I thought if I walked those atomic city streets, it might help me answer some questions.
But not much remains to tell the story. A lot of it got pulverized after the war. Homes of the Manhattan Project’s most famous scientists are still there, turned into history exhibits for the city. The lodge that hosted ample forms of entertainment still stands. A few cafeterias and old dorms do too. Even J. Robert Oppenheimer’s house is still there – although you can’t go inside. It remains a private residence, and it hides behind thick, snarling shrubs.
I learned a lot at Los Alamos, but the deeper questions still lingered. To answer them, history began pointing me to J. Robert Oppenheimer himself. Not the famous head of the nuclear program, or the statue standing in that town center, or the haunted face staring out from magazines of the era. I wanted to know “Oppie” the human. Because in big stories like this, it’s so easy to forget the players were, after all, humans. These weren’t superheroes or comic-book villains with special powers. These were people, who by an accident of time or fate, had to deal with the extraordinary. Who was the human under that porkpie hat, who made infamous the words from the Bhagavad Gita –“I am become death, destroyer of worlds?” Well, when it comes to J. Robert Oppenheimer, that is a complicated question.
In 1904, Julius Robert Oppenheimer made his entrance in New York. His father worked in the textile industry. His mother was a painter, and their well-to-do household, always brimming with famous paintings and works of art, molded young Oppenheimer into a sensitive, intellectual boy in a comfortable upper class. They had him educated at the Ethical Culture Society School, an establishment that drilled students in good deeds, upstanding morals, and duty to society at large. This had a big role in shaping Oppenheimer’s politics later in life, and he did exceedingly well there.
He planned to attend Harvard after he graduated, but a bout of illness intervened, and he ended up meeting his first love instead – the desert southwest. Oppenheimer took a trip to New Mexico after school to recover his health. From the moment he set foot there, the desert landscapes, mystic mountains, Santa Fe culture, and rustic horseback rides pulled at the budding scientist. The stamp it left was permanent. Within a few short years, he owned a small cabin there, and it served as a lifelong retreat from his frequent emotional ups and downs. Perhaps it was also an early beckoning from fate herself…
But first came university. Once he fully recovered from his illness, Oppenheimer flew through Harvard in a frantic three years, graduating summa cum laude. While he walked away with a degree in chemistry, experimental physics had long-since begun to turn his head.
Although by that time, his head was a bit of a mess. As the 1920s dawned, the boy Oppenheimer had grown into a tall, wiry, curly-haired chain smoker whose explosive emotions pulled him every which way. Years of devouring advanced literature and poetry, in addition to high-level science, molded him into a strange breed. A volatile mix of extreme logical prowess, and fiery, passionate sensitivity towards the human condition that often overwhelmed him. His once-tender emotional streak progressed into full-blown, dangerous bouts of depression.
These cropped up big-time when Oppenheimer went to study at Cambridge in the mid-1920s. His friends and colleagues, including his brother Frank, described episodes where Oppenheimer didn’t leave his bed for days at a time. He often refused to eat or socialize, claiming he “needed physics more than friends.” He attacked one of his best friends who tried to cheer him up with an engagement story. He also left an apple laced with toxic chemicals on the desk of a teacher who was mean to him. An episode that forced him into psychiatry appointments to process his paralyzing emotions.
But while Oppenheimer’s personal life spiraled on unsteady ground, he found solid footing in the blossoming field of Particle Physics. In 1926, Oppenheimer moved to Göttingen University in Germany to study under Max Born. Rubbing elbows with future household names in physics (including Werner Heisenberg, his German counterpart in World War II), Oppenheimer made a name for himself early in his career. Even Göttingen professors hesitated in engaging the quick-witted, fast-talking student. He frequently went off on tangents his colleagues could barely comprehend. When Oppenheimer completed his oral exam for the doctoral in 1927, the supervising professor, James Franck, was relieved, because “he [Oppenheimer] was on the point of questioning me.”
Oppenheimer picked a good time to get in on the action, because the 1920s and 30s saw a boon of discoveries in quantum physics. Like a trendy, California diet, everyone wanted to try it, and Oppenheimer left fingerprints all over the field. By the time he returned to the United States, the physics wonder had published a dizzying array of papers on extremely complicated topics – many that paved the way for advanced physics as we know it. His name appears on the early theories for cosmic rays and quantum tunneling. He helped predict the existence of the positron, and although Stephen Hawking is synonymous with black holes, it was actually J. Robert Oppenheimer who published the first academic paper on them in 1939. By then, many upheld Oppenheimer as a forward figure in physics.
In between all the writing spurts, Oppenheimer taught full time at Berkley and Caltech. The turbulent seas of his depression had settled into calmer waters, and he instead channeled that emotional streak towards students studying under him. They flocked to the eccentric scientist too, who plowed through cigarettes and talked at warp-speed all through his overwhelming lectures. Although he could be arrogant and condescending at times, he also pulled people in with a hypnotizing charm, something almost magnetic. Students bonded to him like a father figure, emulating his mannerisms, dress habits, and eating habits. They also followed him between his two jobs like groupies would a rock star.
Oppenheimer’s charm and dazzling blue eyes also had sway with the ladies, although he had a penchant for pursuing the married ones. His antics with other people’s wives ended at least one academic collaboration with a fellow scientist. The woman he eventually married, Katharine “Kitty” Peuning, had another man’s ring on her finger when “Oppie” swept her away to his New Mexico hideaway. There came quite the “Lucy, you have some ‘splainin’ to do” moment when a landlady called the next day, fuming that a woman’s nighty had been left behind.
Just as he was oblivious to courteous courtship rituals, Oppenheimer also had a blind spot with politics. He often boasted that he never read a newspaper, and that he didn’t learn of the 1929 crash until six months after it occurred. Maybe that’s why he didn’t realize the danger of associating with communists in the 1930s. He made no secret of dating and entertaining notable lefties at Berkley. He donated piles of money towards the plight of Spanish refugees during the bloody Civil War there, often funneling the money through communist cells. Despite all this, Oppenheimer’s actual membership in the party remains a hotly debated question. He maintained to the last that he never officially joined, but he certainly left a trail littered with associations. His first serious girlfriend had deep ties to the California communist party. His brother Frank did join the party, and even his wife Kitty had a background handing out communist leaflets. In later years, plenty of communists claim they saw Oppenheimer at meetings, shaking his legendary cocktails and spouting the typical party lines.
This would be a problem in both his near and far future. By 1940, a series of scientific experiments proved that a powerful bomb, indeed the most powerful on earth, could be made using a chain reaction of splitting atoms. Oppenheimer fused to the concept with all the pull of the Strong Force (physics puns!) With his California associates, he began research on fast-moving neutrons, calculating how much radioactive material would be needed to build a bomb. He also raised a chilling question – could this bomb ignite the earth’s atmosphere, and instantly destroy all life on earth? “Not likely,” many of his colleagues said. “The chances are near zero.”
Now, if it had been me, that would have been the end of it. But Oppenheimer and many others kept going. Not because they didn’t care about the morals and dangers involved. It’s just that the nuclear (not Schrodinger) cat was out of the bag. Atomic research couldn’t be stopped, and neither could the Nazi terrors spreading like a poison across Europe. They had already spawned the worst war in history and put many of Oppenheimer’s own friends and colleagues on the run. Above all else, Oppenheimer knew there could be no world where the Nazis held everyone hostage with the atom’s secrets.
No doubt feeling the same pressure, the US government forged ahead too. By the early 1940s, as the country jumped from the frying pan and into the fire of World War II, the Roosevelt administration began planning a secret lab to build the world’s first atomic weapon. Through the grapevine, Oppenheimer learned that with his star-studded background in physics (whoa, astrophysics puns), his name had made the short list for candidates to run this lab.
But getting the job was an uphill climb. Army General Leslie Groves, appointed by Washington to run “the Manhattan Project,” had some concerns with Oppenheimer. His lack of a Nobel Prize meant he probably couldn’t keep high-profile scientific egos in check. His resume appeared a bit scant when it came to leadership or lab work. And several eyes in Washington hardened when they glanced at the communist causes with Oppie’s name attached. However, their other choices were either busy with different war work (like the dire development of radar), or they remained pacifist. For better or worse, Leslie Groves put the laboratory in the hands of J. Robert Oppenheimer. And when the general mentioned the need for an isolated, off-the-map location for it, Oppenheimer knew just the place.
In the 1940s, Los Alamos was nothing but a deserted mesa deep in the bowels of New Mexico, high above the city of Santa Fe. The only road in was a winding, perilous nightmare of a dirt path. A primitive school for boys existed there, along with a few tumble-down ranches. The mud was legendary, there were no telephones, and it didn’t even show up on most maps. A more rustic place could not be found, and Groves and Oppenheimer had little time to turn this desert mesa into the world’s most advanced laboratory, complete with living quarters for elite scientists and their families.
That wasn’t the only obstacle to overcome either. As Groves and Oppenheimer began recruiting the world’s best scientists, dragging them to the mesa under mysterious terms, two completely different working styles emerged. General Groves, a man of strict military discipline and even stricter Washington politics, had all the tenderness of an iron sledgehammer. His underlings cowered under his high expectations and stern reprimands. He tried to make all Los Alamos personnel wear military uniform and adhere to military decorum. A big believer in secrets, he pushed for compartmentalization, even among the scientists. Which means that much like the Star Wars cast only gets scripts for their respective roles, Groves wanted Los Alamos workers knowing only the bare minimum to complete their jobs.
Emotional, intellectual Oppenheimer took a completely opposite approach. He not only argued that scientists should maintain an open dialogue for the forward progress of ideas, but he also suggested the allied nations, all of them, should be open with each other about their work. In order to prevent bitterness and an arms race after the war, he felt even the Russians should be let in on the secret (boy would that come back to bite him later). He hosted open forums for all Los Alamos scientists to come and bat around ideas after hours. He also fought (and won) to keep people out of stiff military dress. To boost morale, he hosted ample parties at his abode on Bathtub Row, complete with his signature martinis. And people couldn’t help but attend, because the magnetic charm he exerted in his university days still worked on the mesa. It’s how he got half the scientists to agree to come and work for him. Oppenheimer just had a way with people.
Even as the pace picked up at Los Alamos, and the race to beat Germany to the bomb grew tight and confusing, Oppie kept his cool, human touch. And he always trusted his employees, perhaps a little too much. He brought aboard plenty of scientists with communist associations before the war, some of whom were later outed as Russian spies (which would also come back to bite him later). But laser focused on achieving the atom’s secrets, Oppie didn’t care for politics…
…Or the many moral concerns emerging from scientists at Los Alamos. Despite Groves’ best attempts at secrecy, these people weren’t dumb. A bomb was in the works, and they had plenty of questions. Where would it be used? Was this really the right role for science? And what exactly would the effects be? This was a brand new technology, more powerful than any the world had known before. What would happen if something went wrong?
These moral quandaries took firmer hold in late 1944 and early 1945. By then, it became evident that Germany would lose the war, and that their progress had long-since stalled in adding nuclear warfare to their arsenal. Since many scientists only joined the race to keep nuclear physics out of Nazi hands, they wondered why they had to continue. They began to hold meetings, many of which Oppenheimer attended, debating their tight moral quandary. A handful resigned and left Los Alamos, while others penned an urgent letter to the Truman Administration. Signed by 155 scientists, the letter begged government officials to reconsider use of such a weapon against civilians. They could stage a demonstration instead, or at least give Japan a fair chance to surrender. The heartfelt letter would never be seen by Truman.
Concern only mounted higher when scientists got the full taste of exactly what they had built. On July 16, 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, under careful military observation, detonated the world’s first nuclear blast in the isolated desert of New Mexico. Code-named “Trinity,” a nod to Oppenheimer’s love of John Donne poetry, “the gadget” exploded with the force of 22 kilotons of TNT. The desert sand instantly melted and fused into a radioactive, jade-colored glass. The shockwave fanned out and rattled windows dozens of miles away. Witnesses reacted in a variety of ways, many remaining dead silent. Oppenheimer could only think of his oft-studied Hindu texts – “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”
This is where the story gets really hard for me to digest. Perhaps some people weren’t totally aware of the Pandora’s Box they had opened, but Oppenheimer knew what was to come. Yet, as scientists at Los Alamos pointed out the evils of the bomb, Oppenheimer remained a stark supporter of using it, even with Germany out of the war. He assisted Groves and the Truman administration in the selection of a Japanese target. And when the Enola Gay dropped “Little Boy” over quiet Hiroshima on a clear, August morning, he celebrated. While Japanese people suffered and died in heaps across the Pacific, J. Robert Oppenheimer stood before a wildly cheering crowd at Los Alamos and proclaimed success to the world.
Why? How could someone with such deep, emotional insight celebrate something so horrific? A letter he helped pen to the Interim Advisory Committee in June of 1945 might shed some light on the subject. It says in part – “Others emphasize the opportunity of saving American lives by immediate military use, and believe that such use will improve the international prospects, in that they are more concerned with the prevention of war than with the elimination of this specific weapon.”
It’s an interesting sneak peek into Oppenheimer’s mind and motives. He had joined the atomic race to keep the Nazis from getting their hands on this power, but he also knew once that power arrived, there was no going back. So, how to best keep things from spiraling out of control? The prospect of using the bomb sent turbulent ripples through the entire scientific world, but there was something else to consider. Something a bit darker. Perhaps he felt, as some of his Los Alamos colleagues theorized, that the only way to beat the military complex, to prevent the train from running away, was to hop on board. Detestable, atrocious, and hard to forgive. But…. Using the bomb, showing people its horrors at face value, just might have done more than anything to keep it from being used again. The threats have come, and they will come in the future, but the stories of survivors, the horrific photos of “the gadget’s” brutal aftermath, have so far stayed even the loudest blusterer’s hands.
Whether Oppenheimer was right or wrong isn’t for me to say, but his future life shows that he might have harbored at least some remorse. After the war ended, and the true circumstances around Hiroshima and Nagasaki crept out of their hiding places in top secret files, the horror of it seemed to burrow under his skin. He later indicated he felt misled about Japan’s circumstances at the end of the war. And he never got over the second strike on Nagasaki, which according to his closest colleagues, made him absolutely livid.
After the war, he grew increasingly outspoken with the newfangled ideas of a nuclear arsenal. As he did at Los Alamos, Oppenheimer encouraged his country to keep clean with the world about their progress on the atom. Secrets, lies, and spies would only cause a society-threatening arms race, and he suggested an international panel should oversee nuclear developments. He also detested talk of the “super bomb,” Edward Teller’s hydrogen bomb that was more destructive than its atomic counterpart. He condemned military nuclear tests on Bikini-Atoll. He wrote letters, he gave interviews, and he rallied the scientific community, only to meet disappointment and dangerous developments at every turn. When the Soviet Union tested their own atomic weapon in 1949, Washington hit the accelerator on their own arms build-up. The hostile race that Oppenheimer tried to avoid from the beginning had officially begun.
And things only got worse from there. As the 1950s broke, and the McCarthy era reached the height of its frenzy, Oppenheimer drew some powerful political ire. Namely from Lewis Strauss, a hardline pro-H-bomb and pro-build-up politician. He also drew the infamous wrath of J. Edgar Hoover, who pretty much hated everyone, and who had been quietly keeping Oppenheimer under surveillance since the early 1940s. Even President Truman, rankled by Oppenheimer’s sentimental spouting off at a time of such political turmoil, quickly tired of the famous physicist. These potent enemies were a deadly mix with the Washington hot bed of McCarthy coals.
The storm broke in 1953, when a former member of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, William Borden, sent a troubling letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He claimed that Oppenheimer was “more probably than not” an agent for the Soviet Union. While Eisenhower sympathized with his fellow war hero, and doubted the extent of the claim, he felt cornered and authorized an investigation. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, was stripped of his high-level security clearance.
The accusations staggered Oppenheimer. He got so upset that one night, he collapsed unconscious in his bathroom. Many of his colleagues, including Albert Einstein, urged him to leave the country. Once, when a friend asked him point-blank why he wouldn’t take a university position overseas, the frail Oppenheimer, with tears in his eyes, said, “because I love this country so much.”
He decided to fight the accusations, submitting to a hearing about his security clearance with the Atomic Energy Commission. But in this case, patriotic love wasn’t enough. Strauss had gathered plenty of damning evidence against his political rival, and those spotty connections from Oppenheimer’s past clamped their jaws for the bite. Despite glowing testimony in his defense from former colleagues (including General Groves), the whole thing went about as predicted. Oppenheimer lost his clearance, got the boot from all things nuclear, and saw all his political influence go up in flames. A fine way to treat someone who had helped create the technology that everyone was so busy fighting over.
Which circles us back around to… was it really necessary? Well, getting to know Oppie the human, the sensitive boy, the could-be communist, the ladies’ man with the wild emotions and eyebrow-arching eccentricities, and one of the most intelligent physicists of his time, gave me some things to chew on. The Manhattan Project started in 1942, at the height of the war, when Allied victory was by no means assured. Even in 1945, no one knew what the world would look like after the mayhem, just like we don’t know how things will look post-Covid. It’s easy for me, seventy-five years in the future, to get angry and accusatory. But confusing, chaotic times lead to confusing, chaotic decisions – some with unforgivable consequences. A lesson sure driven home these last few months. With the plethora of wounds ripped open in this country lately, I can only wonder what they will say about us seventy-five years from now.
I think the only solid conclusion I can draw is that nuclear power, and the full, horrifying potential of the atom, is one of the most powerful forces this world will ever see – perhaps too powerful for humans. Humans with their fragile egos, axes to grind, and bitter, often polarizing politics. But it is here to stay now, and all we can do is remember – tell the stories, make amends, and study. Learn. Put ourselves in the shoes of people before us. Turn them into humans instead of (in)famous faces. It will help us remember we are humans too, who are just as capable of making deadly mistakes. Only then can we prevent these horrible circumstances, including the ones in our own present, from ever repeating themselves.
Whew, that was intense. Here’s some cute cats.
All photos by M.B. Henry – for more from our Route 66 adventure, click here.
Manhattan Project National Historic Park – Los Alamos
American Prometheus – K. Bird & M.J. Sherwin
The Manhattan Project – C.C. Kelly
109 East Palace – J. Conant